JP Gaul: St Ives, a typographical tour


We are delighted to introduce a new voice to our site. JP Gaul here explores the juxtaposition of clotted cream teas and Gill Sans in his typographical survey of St Ives.

I have a picture of my 10-year-old self wearing a Bay City Rollers T-shirt while sitting on a beach in St Ives. Thirty-six years on I struggle to justify such an unfathomable sartorial choice – a boy, on the cusp of adolescence, in a Bay City Rollers T-shirt? What could I have been thinking? I can only assume that ‘Shang-a-Lang’ went to my head. Or maybe it was ‘Bye Bye Baby’. The boy in the picture may now be decidedly post-adolescent, and more on the cusp of the bifocal stage of life, but the backdrop in the photograph, that remarkable bay of St Ives, in the far West of Cornwall, remains unchanged and glorious. This small town of just 11,000 residents is rammed during the warmer months with a huge and typically eclectic range of visitors which includes working class families, middle class art enthusiasts, surfers and bored teenage kids.

St Ives continues to work its magic on me and my family. We are weak to its charms and return most years. Wandering yet again around its charmingly built-up and labyrinthine nooks and crannies on my visit this July it struck me that aspects of the story of St Ives are revealed by looking at the range of typographical styles visible around the town. In essence I see a pleasing tension between the town’s overwhelming ecclesiastical tradition and its rather incongruous position as the most significant centre of British painting and sculpture of the modern movement outside of London. The arrival of Tate St Ives in 1992 has sharpened the town’s profile as an important centre of British modernism. Dealers and academics had long visited the area to enjoy the work of Hepworth, Leach, Nicholson et al, but in the last 20 years the fame of St Ives as a remote and perhaps rather unlikely centre of important abstract art has increased to the point that when I visited the Tate this Summer the majority of visitors were not British.

The character of St Ives is somehow captured in that juxtaposition of clotted cream teas and Gill Sans. You get the impression that the attempt to reclaim St Ives for the art crowd occasionally causes little flickers of frustration. On attempting to order a cream tea from the impeccable Tate cafe the waiter snapped back at me “Well we do offer a scone yes.” The Penwith Gallery on Back Road West was always a leading centre of St Ives modernism and the atmosphere there and the art exhibited still feel authentic and rooted in the town’s artistic heritage. This heritage, which largely bore fruit in the 1950s and 1960s when the next generation of artists such as Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron were making their mark, is usually expressed graphically in Gill Sans or in later mid-century typefaces, such as Univers. It’s a beautifully polite and well mannered sort of modernism that St Ives offers, possibly the only sort the British palate really goes for. Its art expresses less the dynamism and energy of a new world, and is instead much more an attempt to come to terms with the overwhelming nature of the Cornish land and seascapes.

I like the stuff on the churches too. For such a little place St Ives is jam-packed with all sorts of religious buildings. I guess when pilchards were how you made your money you had to pray for a bountiful and benign Atlantic ocean. I expect it was rarely both, and that religion offered succour in difficult times. Methodism was the main faith, and it still is, going by the attendances I peeked at through open doorways.  The visual manifestation of Methodism has a rather pleasing plain, austere quality. Sans serif signage is chiselled into slabs of the local granite. Tough, no-nonsense folk and a smattering of creatives – it’s a beguiling mix. I particularly enjoyed the Church notice boards – one using the kind of type that has so interested Peter Blake throughout his career, and another displaying non-ironic use of the sort of pin-board which has become an inescapable part of the visual language of the contemporary hipster cafe. A Long Macchiato for £2.50? No thanks, we want to know what time the prayer meeting starts.

And if I may finally just return to that Bay City Rollers T-shirt of my youth. The name of the typeface on my skinny-fit navy blue T is not known to me – it was a very 1970s kind of thing, a goofy bubbly style, easy to copy on your school exercise books, and it was featured on the cover of their imaginatively titled debut album ‘Rollin’.  I’d love to know what it’s called but really cannot imagine there is much contemporary demand for it, unlike dear old Gill Sans, now almost a century old yet still impeccably English, modern and popular.

JP Gaul is co-author of The Ivy Look (France Lincoln), an exemplary and essential guide to Ivy League clothing.

Published 6 June 2012

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